There's one question Kathleen Kindig constantly hears from her customers out west: "Freeland, Md.? What are you doing in Freeland, Md.?"
It's a logical question. Kathy Kindig runs Pipestone, a company that manufactures and sells china with Western motifs. So when her customers from Texas, New Mexico, California and such call her to place their orders, they can't resist asking what she's doing here in the Maryland countryside instead of someplace out on the mesa.
What Ms. Kindig and a handful of workers actually are doing here is this: They take pure white hotel-grade, high-fire vitreous china ("blanks" as they are called), add their own stencils, fire them to a temperature where the designs fuse completely with the glaze, then pack and ship them.
She currently has two lines of china -- reproductions of the Mimbreno china originally used in the Atchison, Topkea & Santa Fe Railroad dining cars, and their newest design, Cow Camp, by Montana artist and sculptor Buckeye Blake. "I think both of our lines are really unusual and unique," Ms. Kindig says. "We go ahead and spend the extra money to have a different design on each item, but that's what makes it interesting and collectible."
Ms. Kindig started out 15 years ago running the B&O; Railroad Museum shop. At the time the shop sold reproductions of the B&O; Railroad china. A few years later Ms. Kindig fell in love with the Mimbreno designs from Santa Fe and arranged to have those reproduced.
She left the railroad museum to create Nostalgia Station, a business then in Federal Hill that sold railroad collectibles and her reproductions of dining-car china.
Not quite two years ago, after she discovered the technology that would enable her to manufacture her own designs using blanks and stencils, she moved to Freeland and set up manufacturing and distribution in a converted barn. "We keep converting horse stalls into office space and shipping space," she says. "Soon we're expanding into the hay loft."
In July she changed the name of the company from Nostalgia Station to Pipestone. "Pipestone is a claylike red stone that was traded by the Indian tribes and used to make their peace pipes. And I liked all those associations," she says. "Nostalgia Station was connected with the railroad thing and the B&O; Museum, and I wanted a broader name."
Cow Camp, which was added last December, has gold, blue, red and brown designs of cattle brands, cowboys breaking horses or twirling lariats, longhorn steers, saddles, boots and chaps. Its creator, Buckeye Blake, is still active in cutting horse competition. His life and work were featured in the July issue of HG magazine.
There are 12 items in the Cow Camp line and Ms. Kindig expects to add Cow Baby, a three-piece child's set, this winter. The Mimbreno line has new items added every year with the newest being glassware, tiles, buffet plates and an oval serving dish.
Cow Camp sells for $84 for a four-piece place setting; the Mimbreno place setting is $65.
In the near future, Ms. Kindig hopes to add one new entire line of china per year. The next one, also with a Western theme, is already in the design and planning stage.
Using the same process, Ms. Kindig says her company can easily do small runs of china in a cost-effective way and she is seeking outside custom work.
"Unlike earthenware or low-fire china, this high-fire vitreous china doesn't chip easily. It's very durable, made to be used in restaurants," Ms. Kindig says, "and it's dishwasher and microwave safe."
Pipestone is primarily a wholesale operation but individuals can order china directly from the company by mail. For a brochure and price list, send $1 to Pipestone, P.O. Box 250, Freeland, Md. 20153. The telephone number is 343-0464.
Currently the Pipestone designs are most popular in shops in the western part of the country so only a few places locally carry them. They will be available in the Walters Art Gallery gift shop through Oct. 1 to coincide with an exhibition of southwestern religious art. For a time after the exhibit closes, the china will still be available at the Walters by special order.
Cow Camp is sold through Carol's Western Apparel at 7347 Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie and 9600 Route 198 in Laurel. XOXO, the Santa Fe Collection, in Union Station in Washington carries both designs.
This fall, Pipestone china is featured in several mail-order catalogs, the best-known being Sundance. It was also in this past summer's Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.
Seconds -- china pieces which may have a nearly imperceptible flaw in the decal -- are available at a discount through a once-a-year sale. Fliers announcing the sale are sent to regular customers whose names are on a mailing list.